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Narrative Lectionary Text: Matthew 18:1-9.
Do we have any pilots in the room?
I want you to verify something for me. When a pilot is flying at night, the pilot has to rely completely on the instruments, right?
I heard a story about a fighter pilot who was running a mission at night where she was flying very close to the ground, under the radar, at high speeds. I can’t imagine what a rush that must be, knowing that you are skimming right about the earth, in the dark. She went to make a quick ascension, and when she pulled back on the joystick to go up, she crashed right into the ground. BOOM!
What went wrong?
Something happened, either to her perception, or to her instruments, and she was flying upside down, and didn’t know it. When she thought she was going up, she actually went down, and it had deadly consequences.
Our theme for Lent this year is Living Upside Down.
Over the next seven weeks we will explore the teachings and parables of Jesus and see what this Kingdom of Heaven is all about. Then, on Wednesday nights we will use the new video series called Animate Practices to explore practical ways that we can live in this Kingdom Life that Jesus invites us to enter. I think it is going to be a great journey.
Here’s the thing about the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is an upside down thing.
First of all, when Jesus says “the Kingdom of Heaven” he’s not talking about a place that you go when you die. He’s talking about a way of living right now.
Do you remember the opening line of the prayer we pray every week?
“God, your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Jesus invites us to live in the Kingdom Life right now.
The problem is that it is harder than it sounds.
That is why we need a season like Lent, and a service like this one on Ash Wednesday.
One of the key words for Lent is repentance.
It was actually the very first word of the very first sermon that Jesus preached. In Matthew 4:17 he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
The word repent doesn’t mean “Stop Sinning.” It is the word metanoia and it means to change the way your perceive things.
In other words, it means, look at the world and begin to realize that you might actually be flying upside down.
At every step along this journey Jesus is going to challenge our status quo and invite us to see a deeper reality.
He will invite us to see that true life, the abundant life, the life of the ages, or eternal life, is one that happens when we get past all the prideful junk that clogs us up and keeps us fearful and hateful.
The journey begins tonight, with this passage from Matthew 18:1-9.
You’ve got to love Jesus’ disciples.
They are just as thick headed and slow as we are. They’ve been hanging around with Jesus for three years now. They’ve heard his teaching. They just heard him say that if you want to have life, then you have to lose your life, and if you want to follow him you have to pick up your cross.
They’re like, “Yeah, yeah, pick up your cross. That’s a good one, Jesus. But here’s the real question. When you establish your Kingdom on Earth and kick out the Romans, which one of us is going to be the greatest?” “Oh, pick me, pick me!”
I can just see Jesus droop his shoulders and shake his head.
“OK, guys, gather around. Bring me one of those kids over there. Look at this kid. Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven (let alone be great in it)”
If I were leading a small group discussion right now, I would ask you, “What do you think it means to become like a child?”
Think about our culture, here in the suburbs.
Let’s be honest. Being a kid is a pretty sweet deal. You get to go to school later than the older students. You don’t have to work. You have access to video games, toys, and as much entertainment as you can imagine. And, if somebody mistreats you, there is an entire government agency dedicated to protect you, even from your parents.
Confession time. Have you ever seen these little, innocent children and thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to be a child again?”
If that’s what Jesus is talking about, then perhaps he’s telling us to be innocent, and just play nice with other. You know, kind of like the book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think that is what Jesus meant when he said these words.
In Jesus’ day, it wasn’t easy to be a child. There was a pecking order in society that went like this. The only people who really mattered were wealthy men. Below them were all other men. Below the men were women. Then came children, the poor, slaves and animals.
So, if you were a boy child, then the only thing you had going for you was that you would grow up to be a man one day. If you were a girl child, then the only hope you had of being valuable was if you produced a boy for your husband.
The key to Jesus’ statement is here in verse 4.
“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Do you see how this takes the world, and turns it upside down?
And then, Jesus adds to the upside-downedness of the Kingdom.
He says, not only are you to humble yourself and become like those on the bottom of the social scale, your are also supposed to welcome those who are already down there.
Look at verse 5.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Where is Jesus placing himself on this scale?
He said, I am down there, and if you come down here with me, and welcome everybody down here, as your equal, then you will be welcoming me.
Here’s the deep reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We’re all down here, because there’s not really an up there. When we realize that every human being is equal, and equally loved by God, then we will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
If you don’t believe this to be true, then continue reading in verses 6-9 about how God feels about these children.
If you mess with God’s children, it would be better for you if you hung a stone around your neck and drown, or gouged out your eyes and hands. Why? Because if you mistreat these children, then you are completely missing the point of God’s Kingdom.
All your efforts and striving in life adds up to the trash that they throw out on the garbage dump and burn. By the way, that is what the word Hell means in the Greek. It is Gehenna, the name of the trash dump outside of Jerusalem where they continually burned the worthless refuse.
God doesn’t want your life to be a waste.
Jesus invites you to repent, to see the upside down nature of the Kingdom, and to know real life where we treat each other the way God treats us.
Here’s the problem.
This is really hard to do.
This is especially hard for us, in this part of the world, because everything we’ve ever been taught is that we have to work hard to get ahead in life and it is all about the survival of the fittest.
We don’t want to humble ourselves.
I had a little opportunity experience this yesterday. Some of you having been tracking with me as I’ve come to the final moments of turning in my dissertation. I really thought I was done. Yesterday I had a meeting with my advisor and one of the readers and they said, it’s not quite ready. Give yourself another eight weeks and rewrite it. You can graduate next May.
Yeah. That’s a little serving of humble pie.
Be careful what you preach. God tends to give you the opportunity to live out these illustrations.
Tonight, we are invited to take a moment and ask a serious question.
Which direction am I flying?
Do I see the world through the lenses that Jesus offered, or am I flying by the world’s standards of selfishness and pride.
Am I trying too hard to be a grown-up?
In a few moments you will come forward to receive a smear of ash on your forehead and we will say,
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
That is a humbling reminder of the brevity and fragility of life. Perhaps, in light of this text, we might also say,
“Remember that you are a child, and everyone around you is a child too.”
I said earlier that living upside down is not easy.
It takes practice. Here is the challenge for us the Lent. We have three different ways that we can engage in this journey and try to grow deeper in our understanding of this upside down Kingdom. I encourage you to visit the Lent page on our website to learn more about this.
I encourage you to:
- Attend Vespers each Wednesday where we will learn about practical ways that we can live in the Kingdom now.
- I encourage you to explore the many different outreach opportunities to help the children, the least of these, globally and locally.
- I encourage you to find the daily reading list on this page and spend time each day soaking in Jesus’ teaching, and asking God to show you how you can humble yourself like a child and fly upside down.
Let’s take this journey together.